So you’re relatively deep in your weight-loss journey and you’ve committed to shedding those excess kilograms. You’ve purchased the matching workout gear from Gymshark, your goals are clearly recorded in your fancy journal, and your meal plan and workout guide is well-researched, simple to follow, yet challenging enough to facilitate your desired body recomposition. Theoretically, you should be shedding those kilos with ease, and you expect that you are well on your way to achieving you weight-loss goals. But as you step on the scales in the morning of your weekly check-in, you feel a sense of foreboding creep in. You admit to yourself that you haven’t adhered to your meal plan and your exercise levels have been poor. Sure enough, you exhale a sigh of disappointment as the number reflected on the scales is the same disheartening figure you’ve become all too accustomed to. The lack of change and the acknowledgement of your non-compliance with the daily goals you’ve set for yourself leads to the pertinent question – why can’t I just stick to my goals?
Whilst we could spend hours debating the use of scales as an inaccurate depiction of fat-loss, if you know you haven’t been sticking to your goals then it’s probably likely you haven’t made the progress you want to that will ultimately lead to your fat-loss goals. If this is you, you might find yourself constantly engaging in self-sabotaging behaviours, failing to avoid the cyclic “diet starts Monday” attitude whereby you stick to your “diet” perfectly for three days, become bored or stressed and “ruin” your diet by binging on an excessive amount of calories. At this point you say “fuck it”, and the rest of the week is a succession or poor nutrition decisions because you’ve told yourself you will commit to your diet on the next Monday. This cycle will often be repeated and it can be disheartening, time-consuming and ultimately a huge impediment to you reaching your goals. If this sounds like you, I implore you to read the rest of this article and really reflect upon the concepts I discuss, in that hope that you become more aware of the your destructive habit loops and maladaptive behaviours. Moving forward, here’s some things for you to consider if you haven’t been able to achieve your weight-loss goals:
Ask Yourself, Are Your Goals Realistic?
The first thing you can do is address whether the goals you have set for yourself are ridiculous and impossible to achieve. If you find it incredibly difficult to adhere to the behaviours that you have identified you need to engage in to lose weight, then perhaps it might be better to change your goals from the outset. For example, if your goal is to lose 10 kilograms in two weeks, and you have told yourself you need to stick to consuming only 1000 calories a day, then it’s completely understandable that you keep coming up short in achieving this. Eating such a minimal amount of food in an attempt to achieve a totally fanciful weight-loss goal will merely lead to disappointment. Unless you have mental toughness of Rocky Balboa, it’s highly unlikely you stick to 1000 calories a day, at least for the period of time required to lose 10 kilos. Even if you have managed to adhere to this outrageously low calorie amount for more than a week, all your friends have probably deserted you because you were such a miserable beast to be around, and the next time you can even smell a McDonalds cheeseburger you’ll probably stuff yourself silly with 10 of them because your willpower is only finite.
What you can do instead of this is identify an objectively realistic goal, one that you can achieve and that doesn’t require outrageously restrictive behaviours. For example, perhaps you set yourself a goal of losing 5kg within a month, and you can reduce your daily-calorie intake by roughly 300-500 calories. Whilst you may feel slightly hungrier throughout the day, if you are consuming adequate amounts of protein and maintaining a balanced diet, your days probably won’t be impacted dreadfully because the change in eating habits is nowhere near as dramatic. Because you aren’t depriving yourself, you are less likely to fall in the binge-restrict habit loop, and thus you are more likely to maintain the behaviours that will eventually lead to weight-loss.
Ask Yourself, Are Your Goals Sufficiently Specific?
Sometimes when we fail to achieve our goals, it’s because you haven’t provided enough specificity and therefore you don’t actually know how to quantify progress. For example, you might write down your goal as something like “I want to lose weight and get stronger in the gym”. Whilst we can ascertain when weight-loss occurs and strength increases, arguably these goals are too vague and not time-specific enough in order to sustain the required focus or motivation. At the beginning of any new gym or nutrition plan, I would recommend getting really specific about what you want to achieve, as well as what exactly you need to do to achieve these goals.
For example, begin by writing “I want to lose X amount of weight by X date”. You will need to refer to my previous point to ensure that they are indeed realistic goals before continuing. You will then need to identify what behaviours you need to engage in to achieve this. You can write down something like “I will walk 10,000 steps a day, go to a gym class 4 times a week, and ensure I am eating in a calorie deficit of 500 calories per day”. I would avoid creating too many behaviour changes/daily goals because you don’t want to become mentally fatigued or overwhelmed with all the changes you are trying to implement. If you keep it simple yet quite specific, this way you can easily quantify progress. For example, you can tick off whether you completed those behaviours each day, and if you didn’t it might me necessary to address some of the other environmental or psychological factors that could be at play that are impinging on your goal progress.
Take a Look at Your Environment – Is It Helping or Hindering?
If you’re an adult with a set of eyes or ears then you’ve probably read James Clears’ fantastic book, “Atomic Habits”. Among other things, Clear emphasises the importance of your environment in curating adaptive and positive habits and discarding unhelpful ones. It’s essential that you organise your environment in a way that makes it as easy as possible for you to achieve your goals. Ask yourself, is there anything I can do to make achieving my goals easier? Could I reach out to a friend to be an accountability partner? What if I have my gym clothes set out the night before and my phone alarm on the otherside of my bedroom away from my bed. Make this a habit and eventually it will be easy to get out of bed earlier and go to the gym. Perhaps you can hire a personal trainer to assist you with progress and accountability, or you can purchase a new cookbook and prepare delicious meals that make food enjoyable and not a source of sadness or anxiety.
On the flip-side, you will also need to assess what environmental factors are making it difficult to achieve your goals, and see whether there’s anything you can change. Is your Netflix binge before bed causing you to snooze your alarm in the morning and thus causing you to miss your gym session? Perhaps your friends are unaware about your strong desire to lose weight, and keep tempting you with boozy brunches or movie nights where the cheese platter is larger than a king size bed. It might be necessary to put your laptop away at least an hour before bed and replace it with a rewarding behaviour, like reading or listening to a peaceful meditation playlist. You might choose to explicitly discuss with your friends your commitment and desire to lose weight and that whilst the cheese-platters and dinners should still occur, perhaps only having 1 block of cheese as opposed to 50 between three girls might be appropriate. It’s important to recognise that adapting your environment is just one tool that can assist you in achieving your goals. Just because you don’t stock 16 blocks of chocolate in your cupboard and you pack your gym clothes to work doesn’t mean you’ll be effortlessly floating to the finish line with fat-loss on the other side. Rather, used in conjunction with other tools such as mindfulness (discussed below), environmental adaption can be a handy tool to facilitate your goals.
Analyse Your Behaviour – What Exactly Aren’t You Adhering to?
If you’ve had weight-loss goals for longer than you can remember, then it’s time to really analyse your behaviour. You need to specifically look at what behaviours you are struggling with, and in what context. For example, do you struggle with alcohol every night after stressful working days? Do you lose motivation to achieve your weight-loss goals as soon as the weekend arrives and your friends ask you out for dinner on three separate evenings? Is it simply someones birthday cake that you can easily consume without affecting your goals, but which sets off a cascade of unhealthy eating behaviours where you have thrown in the towel because you’re a perfectionist and the all or nothing approach is all you’ve ever known? Whatever the behaviour and whatever the occasion , you need to be honest with yourself and identify when it happens. For me, I always turn to food when I am stressed. I’m not much of a drinker unless it involves binge-drinking and destroying my life on the odd occasion. Food on the other hand is what I turn to when I feel a bubble of anxiety in my chest, and I can definitely consume too much when I am not being mindful and thinking about my hunger levels and how I will feel after eating too much food. In order for me to improve my relationship with food, I first needed to identify the context in which I was over-eating.
The Final Step – Change Your Behaviour Using These Tools
Once you’ve taken stock on your daily habits and deeply analysed what specific behaviours you aren’t adhering to and when, now it’s important to implement psychological tools to hopefully change your behaviour and make it easy for you to stick to your goals. As with any behaviour change, you need to start with awareness. If you are mindful of your thoughts, feelings, emotions, and actions, as well as the interrelationship between these, then you can identify why you have found it difficult to lose weight. Perhaps you notice that after scrolling on instagram you feel a pang of jealousy and despair because you don’t look like someone on a heavily curated feed. In the past, you might have glossed over those feelings and mindlessly reached for a comforting piece of banana bread to make you feel better about yourself even though you weren’t hungry. Rather than improving your feelings, you might experience a sore stomach, as well as the regret associated with the failure of eating too much. It’s important to actively notice this process occurring in your mind and see if you can interrupt the automatic habit by reminding yourself that over-eating will not change anything about your inner feelings of turmoil, and in fact will merely exacerbate them. Mindfulness interrupts the stressed habit loop (initial stressor –> eat too much –> stress about it –> use food as coping mechanism for stress) and gives your mind the space to relax. Here you can analyse why you ate too much food. You can pay attention as to what’s happening in your body (sore stomach, lethargy, headache – for example) register that you would like to avoid feeling like this again in the future, and perhaps pave the way for better choices and habits that facilitate you feeling your best.
Moreover, using this example above, if you stop to analyse your feelings of jealousy you might ask yourself why you feel like that. Is it because you have a low self-esteem and you feel like you won’t be “good enough” for other people, and that you’ll always be viewed as inferior to other “skinnier” people? Maybe it’s because you have associated your feelings of self-worth with a number depicted on the scales, or the amount of likes you receive on photo on social media. Now is the time to analyse that initial reaction and dispute your maladaptive thoughts. This might involve engaging in self-esteem building exercises – reminding yourself of all your fantastic attributes and in what ways you have made others’ lives around you better. It might also involve disputing the belief that someone is more worthy than you because they appear objectively thinner in a photo. Your worth stems from how kind you are to other people. Our physical appearance says very little about the quality of our character and how much we contribute to the betterment of society. And, it goes without saying that your view of your physical appearance is probably warped and confidence should always start from within.
One of the key tools that has helped me stick to some of my goals is the concept of intrinsic motivation. Essentially it means utilising the positive feelings that arise from a particular behaviour or action to motivate us to replicate or continue that behaviour in the future. For example, it’s important to identify the differences between behaviours that merely cause immediate bursts of pleasure and subsequent negative implications, with your actions that lead to feelings of happiness and fulfilment overall. The behaviours that cause an enduring sense of fulfilment and happiness are the ones that probably lead you towards achieving your overarching goals. For example, going for a 20 minute jog will probably feel like death before and during the experience, but afterwards you’ll feel a sense of elation and accomplishment. Similarly, preparing a healthy and tasty meal and consuming it mindfully, as opposed to stuffing your face with snacks, will lead you to feeling energised, satisfied and content. We need to use these positive emotions as motivation to guide future behaviours and help us stick to our goals.
As with any challenge that we will inevitably face in our lives, it’s important to approach weight-loss attempts with self-compassion and kindness. There’s no utility in beating ourselves up over eating too much because we were stressed or because we were celebrating a friends birthday. You’re better off accepting that you will not be perfect and that you will make mistakes from time to time. Rather than berating ourselves and thinking we are failures, we should simply tell ourselves that eating too much isn’t the end of the world, things will be okay and you will be better next time. For those of us who are used to feeling awful about ourselves after deviating from a planned diet, changing your self-talk from disappointed and critical to kind and understanding may seem like taking the easy way out. But self-compassion isn’t about taking the easy option, and it’s certainly not about just doing whatever you feel like in the moment. Rather, it involves analysing your situation from a more objective, reasonable and kind viewpoint. Ultimately, it focusses on what you need, or what might bring you to optimal wellbeing overall, as opposed to what you simply desire in the moment.